Happiness Is As Happiness Does

517517380_2c489713abWhat are the happiest countries in the world?

Well, that depends. It depends on how you define happiness and how you figure out if people fit your definition.

Do You Feel Good?
In 2011, the Gallup organization measured “positive emotions” by asking people in 148 countries about their previous day, asking whether they felt well-rested, were treated with respect, smiled or laughed a lot, learned or did something interesting, and experienced enjoyment. The countries with the highest percentage of respondents answering “yes” to all five questions are labeled the “most positive.” They are

  1. Panama
  2. Paraguay
  3. El Salvador
  4. Venezuela
  5. Trinidad and Tobago
  6. Thailand
  7. Guatemala
  8. Philippines
  9. Ecuador
  10. Costa Rica

(Jon Clifton, “Latin Americans Most Positive in the World,” Gallup World, December 29, 2012)

Do You Not Feel Bad?
Gallup also asked people if they had experienced physical pain, worry, sadness, stress, or anger. Those answers produce the following list of places with the least negative emotions:

  1. Somaliland region
  2. Uzbekistan
  3. Thailand
  4. Kyrgyzstan
  5. Kosovo
  6. Turkmenistan
  7. Mali
  8. Singapore
  9. Mongolia
  10. China

(Jon Clifton, “Middle East Leads World in Negative Emotions,” Gallup World, June 6, 2012)

Are You Prosperous?
The Legatum Institutes Prosperity Index measures wealth and wellbeing by looking at the eight categories of economy, entrepreneurship and opportunity, governance, education, health, safety and security, personal freedom, and social capital. This gives us the following list of top-ten countries in 2012:

  1. Norway
  2. Denmark
  3. Sweden
  4. Australia
  5. New Zealand
  6. Canada
  7. Finland
  8. Netherlands
  9. Switzerland
  10. Ireland

(The 2012 Legatum Prosperity Index, The Legatum Institute, 2012)

Are You Thriving?
To measure whether people are “thriving,” “struggling,” or “suffering,” Gallup uses the “Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale.” Participants are asked to imagine a ladder, with rungs numbered 0 to 10 from bottom to top, with 0 being the worst and 10 being the best. The poll then asks two questions: “On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?” and “On which step do you think you will stand about five years from now?” Results in 2010 produce the following ranking, showing the ten countries with the highest levels of thriving people:

  1. Denmark
  2. Sweden
  3. Canada
  4. Australia
  5. Finland
  6. Venezuela
  7. Netherlands
  8. Ireland
  9. Panama
  10. United States

(Julie Ray, “Nearly One in Four Worldwide Thriving,Gallup World, April 10, 2012)

Deeper Analysis, Anyone?
Last year, Columbia University’s Earth Institute published the first World Happiness Report. It contains in-depth evaluations of the hows and whys of measuring happiness around the world, as well as lists based on its own examination of survey responses. One such ranking is the “Average Net Effect by Country,” which combines the averages of the positive and negative emotion results from Gallup (like those shown above). Those results give these top-10 countries:

  1. Iceland
  2. Laos
  3. Ireland
  4. Panama
  5. Somaliland region
  6. Thailand
  7. Taiwan
  8. Austria
  9. Sweden
  10. New Zealand

Another ranking shown in the World Happiness Report is called the “Happy Index.” It uses information from the combined World Values Survey/European Values Survey, asking the question, “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days/nowadays?” putting these countries at the top.

  1. Iceland
  2. New Zealand
  3. Denmark
  4. Netherlands
  5. Northern Ireland
  6. Ireland
  7. Singapore
  8. Malaysia
  9. Norway
  10. Tanzania

(John Helliwell, Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs, eds., World Happiness Report, The Earth Institute, 2012)

Or Would an Anecdotal Approach Make You Feel Better?
And finally, if all this data crunching is not your cup of tea—or if it leaves you somewhat confused—you can do what documentarian Werner Herzog did, and simply recognize happiness where you find it. Even if it’s in the most unlikely places, under the most unlikely circumstances. Even if it’s in the wilderness of Siberia.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov, dirs., 2010)

[photo: “A Happy Man,” by Sukanto Debnath, used under a Creative Commons license]